by Neda Bolourchi
Moqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon (On the Move) Alliance party narrowly won the majority of parliamentary seats in Iraq’s recent elections. Sadr’s more recent history, the language of the campaign, and statements by Sairoon representatives indicate to many that Sadr will work with nearly anyone who disavows or rejects help from Iran, its partners, proxies, or militias. This led to some reserved jubilation as well as premature suggestions of an Iranian loss of regional influence. Sadr’s Sairoon Alliance won, but Iran has not lost either in Iraq or in the region.
Tehran does not see these elections as a zero-sum game. Sairoon narrowly won and must work to build a coalition in order to form a working government. Sadr and Sairoon campaigned on an “Iraq First” platform that relied on deeply nationalistic rhetoric, which has led to an assumption that Sairoon will build a coalition with everyone and anyone not affiliated with Iran. In practice, this means isolating Hadi al-Amiri of the al-Fatah Coalition, which won the second most seats in the election. But such an assumption ignores the on-the-ground realities of politicking. In addition, it also largely ignores what the campaign means for the United States, its presence, and its interests in Iraq.
To be clear, Tehran sees the recent Iraqi election as a potential and momentary setback at worst. The politics of coalition-building is ongoing, and Tehran does not believe that its partners, parties, or proxies will be eliminated from functional and substantives roles in the government, particularly the interior ministry. Tehran’s expectation comes from viewing itself as the most powerful outside actor in Iraq and one that is still needed. Finally, when push comes to shove, Tehran will not allow one election to nullify a decade’s worth of investment.
Reasons for Iranian Optimism
Tehran does not see the Sairoon win as a loss or even a blow for at least four reasons.
First, Tehran is not sure Sadr is now anti-Iran per se as opposed to simply playing to his base as well as his coalition. Iraqi nationalism has been rising over the past several years. Sadr seeks power and, according to Tehran, will adopt positions that garner him more. Advancing anti-Iran rhetoric builds his nationalist credentials so that he is both (allegedly) anti-Iran and anti-U.S, as both countries remain a focus. Yet, both Iran and Sadr want the removal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Sadr and Iran may come to a negotiated agreement on how to achieve such a result and produce a stable Iraq.
Also, Tehran sees Sadr, at his worst, as unpredictable, undependable, and uncontrollable. Sadr has always wanted power and on his terms. He is, as Middle East experts James Muldoon and Yasamin Alttahir have put it less diplomatically in Time, an “impulsive, narcissistic, egoist” who is nothing short of an “opportunist.” Personality differences may play a role as to why Tehran and Sadr may be slightly at odds. Sadr might argue otherwise. He definitely has complaints about how Iranians treated him, both at home in Baghdad and in Iran where he lived in exile from 2008-2011. In particular, he blames Tehran for pressuring Nouri al-Maliki (prime minister from 2006-2014) to limit Sadr’s power and to disband his Mahdi Army. Tehran thinks, even if Sadr turns out to be anti-Iran, he can crumble on his own.
Third, Tehran believes that the Sairoon Alliance will splinter. Running on an “outsider” platform that takes aim at corruption and the lack of public services is not difficult. Transitioning from a campaign to form a functioning government is another issue. Even in a stable and secure country transitions can be problematic. The transition issue is compounded by the composition of Sairoon. Such a disparate grouping of atheists and religiously minded naturally have issues about how to govern and who should fill which government positions. Even a homogenous political party has these issues. Tehran therefore sees this coalition as not only having to maintain itself despite Sadr but also despite its core membership and its fissiparous constitution.
Finally, Sairoon did not win anywhere near a majority. It won 54 of 329 seats and the chance to put forward a new prime minister. Sadr did not run, so he cannot be that premier. The election results require the formation of a coalition government. Because of years invested in Iraq, Tehran believes that it will be part of the new government in some shape or form, regardless of US sanctions against Iraqi politicians affiliated with Tehran. With the outcome of the coalition-building politics unresolved, the Iranian foreign-policy establishment insists that the final outcome will not run counter to Iranian interests.
Tehran holds that Sadr and the Sairoon Alliance, should they want, cannot completely isolate or marginalize Iranian-supported politicians and parties. Tehran spent more than 15 years building networks, providing social services, and helping Iraqis fight the Islamic State and others. Tehran is neither panicking nor scrambling. Naturally, Tehran prefers a government led by a reliable coalition of Ammar al-Hakim (Hikma), former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki (State of Law Coalition), Hadi al-Amiri (al-Fatah Coalition and the Popular Mobilization Units), and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (al-Nasr Alliance). Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani is by all accounts negotiating that possibility. Sadr too expressed a desire to work with Abadi and al-Hakim as well as former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. All sides understand that no party won by a large enough margin to dominate the government-formation process. This is all part of the nature of politics. And, this possibility does not even include the Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis that Iran has won over.
Tehran expects its soft power politics to hold sway. Tehran affiliates will not be eliminated from the political and security processes, in either the short or long term. This is why—should Soleimani and his cadres fail to influence Sairoon’s choice for the premiership and the interior ministry—Tehran is not extremely concerned.
Tehran understands that it cannot push or advance its cause in Iraq too much. Iran is involved in Iraq to assure itself of a stable neighbor and a possible bulwark. Iraq is, potentially, more important to Iran than Syria. Growing Iraqi nationalism that insists upon a secure, prosperous country as well as an anti-Iran bias must be allowed…to an extent. Given the on-the-ground reality of this election, Iran might have to acquiesce to a smaller role in the country. Should diplomatic negotiations over the formation of the Iraqi government fail to produce a majority for Iranian allies, Tehran knows that its partners, parties, and proxies constitute a strong minority, at worst. Trying to force a different outcome by insisting on a more Iran-friendly government—or sabotaging the one that Sairoon puts together—might only increase anti-Iranian sentiment in Iraq and undermine the political investments Tehran has made over time in the country.
None of this is to say that Tehran does not have concerns about its long-term objective to be friendly with and hold sway over a unified, stable Iraq. Like any other state, Iran would like to deny access by other states-competitors or enemies. Most pressing is the extent of relations between Sadr, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Sadr’s rare and public visits to Saudi Arabia and UAE testify to the growing relationship among the three.
Specifically, Tehran is concerned that the Saudis have finally taken Washington’s advice. Riyadh is now copying Tehran by building political support and influence through economic and social incentives. Riyadh is admittedly at least a decade behind and must do the hard work of creating a network of contacts and courting public opinion, which it has been doing by lavishing money on Sadr and the election as well as projects in Basra. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s financial power gives it political leverage at a time when Tehran may, if not should, scale back its presence. Because Iraq is so important to Iranian long-term security strategies, Tehran will fight in one form or another to retain its influence.
Ultimately, Tehran sees the Iraqi election as a setback, at worst. It expects to retain years of investment so that in the long term Tehran has a unified, stable, and friendly neighbor. The Islamic Republic will seek to counter any other foreign competition. Tehran is not scrambling but remains actively engaged in the politics of Iraq to ensure that likelihood. Sadr won the election, but that does not simultaneously mean that Iran has lost.
Neda Bolourchi is currently at the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, The Islamic Monthly, Encyclopaedia Iranica, and the Iranian Studies Journal.